CitiStates Report: Cauldron of Change Close
to Boiling Over
BY Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000
Lots of issues press for top attention in South Florida. But what's likely to determine
everything else? We would nominate culture, how the peoples of Miami-Dade, Broward
and Palm Beach counties learn to live together.
The target of more immigrants than any other U.S. region outside New York and Los
Angeles, South Florida feels more intensely international than either one. Regardless
of which county we were in, it was a rare day for us not to hear two or more languages,
on the sidewalks, in restaurants and elevators. We expected that in Miami, but heard
it nearly everywhere.
This region bubbles with passionate explanations of why people are so fed up with
its tensions and divisions that they're on the brink of leaving. Usually focusing
on Miami-Dade, they name racism, public corruption and sometimes a belief that the
newly dominant Cuban culture leaves little place for others. The many languages
create an aggravating cacophony, the cultural differences a largely unwanted set
Part of the worry is about a community that seems incurably splintered. Venezuelans
sticking to themselves, Colombians in enclaves, African Americans alienated and
southern men joking at the Palm Beach Rotary about sawing off Miami and letting
it float south.
Even by the testimony of its most ardent admirers, South Florida is a tough place
to live. Tough, as in tiring, draining.
Discomfort with all this has driven Miami-Dade residents into Broward and Palm Beach,and
some people out of the region altogether.
Yet there's a diametrically opposite side, migrants (especially younger people)
who came out of curiosity and got addicted to the excitement. Maybe it was the glitz
of South Beach or the buzz of technophiles in Boca Raton that first got their attention.
But now they say, "I wouldn't live any other place. I'd be bored." In
this nearly constant culture churn, with seven of every new 10 people in Miami-Dade
and Broward counties moving in from another country, we got an earful of excitement
and bewilderment. A black leader told us the region is merely that mixture we always
said America was supposed to be, more Cubans than any place save Havana, more Jamaicans
than Kingston and Montego Bay, enough Nicaraguans to be the seventh largest city
in Florida, the second largest Jewish population in the United States, along with
southern-born blacks and whites who came down from the north. "Isn't this the
American melting pot," he asked?
Melting pot? South Florida struck us more like a cauldron of cultural change, sometimes
threatening to boil over. Now even the Miami Cubans know the bitter taste of discrimination.
As one Cuban told us, for more than three decades here, "we were the golden
people." Along came Elián and "we discovered that Anglos still
believe they are the dominant defaults, everybody else is a minority. This doesn't
feel good." Tell that to somebody in Overtown in a crowded apartment with walls
that barely keep out the rain and bugs. Blacks from Africa or The Bahamas were here
from the heyday of Flagler enterprises and have generations of evidence about discrimination.
They still tell the stories in Palm Beach about luring black construction workers
to a party on the mainland, while burning down their little village, called Stix,
on the island, clearing the way for "better" land uses. Max Castro of
the North/South Center at the University of Miami thinks it's like "everybody
has three reels of film but watches only one: blacks say 'We were always here.'
Whites recall this was a nice, southern town; Cubans claim 'We made this place.'
It's intolerance, racism, and arrogance that's killing us." Oddly enough, intensely
multicultural South Florida lacks reliable sets of statistics on who has arrived
from everywhere, and where they live. But the Broward County School System does
do an ethnic count. The results may surprise some who fled Miami-Dade's multicultural
milieu. Broward students now come from 166 countries and arrive speaking 56 different
languages, but they come mostly from the Caribbean Basin ... the islands, Central
America and the northern coast of South America.
In fine-grain detail, the Coordinating Council of Broward now can see the west side
with its Filipinos, Chinese, Asian Indians, Brazilians, Arabs and North Africans,
Israelis and Russians. Or the heavily Caribbean Hispanic south side, with a side
mix of Romanians and Canadians.
Broward County Community College president Willis Holcombe describes a student body
from over 100 different countries, with customs so different "we have to be
careful about whether shaking hands is OK or not."
This is not your grandfather's Broward. Nor your grandmother's Miami-Dade, because
the great foreign influx didn't begin before the 1960s. Nor, for sure, your grandfather's
Palm Beach County, unless you count the Guatemalan farmhands brought in decades
before Castro's rise to power.
The central question for all three counties is whether they can make an asset rather
than a debilitating impediment out of their extraordinary diversity. If the answer
is no, if connective tissue can't be grown, if much deeper dialogue among groups
can't be generated, then really tragic stories about opportunities come and gone
will be the theme of journalists to come.
But if the answer's yes, if the bridges can be built, then the diversity and energy
of this region could make this not just one of the most exciting, but also one of
the globe's most prosperous and fascinating 21st Century regions.